THE presence of Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the World Islamic Economic Forum (WIEF) in Johor Baru was an emphatic message for property developers that relations between Malaysia and the island republic are stronger than ever.
The biggest beneficiaries of this are Johor Baru and Iskandar Malaysia, a sprawling development on a 25,000-acre parcel of land located near the Second Link.
"His attendance was a clear signal of the good ties between the two nations. This will help Iskandar significantly," says Datuk Jeffrey Ng, the CEO of Sunway REIT Management Sdn Bhd, on the sidelines of the forum.
The Sunway group announced the acquisition of another 779 acres in Iskandar Malaysia, bringing the total it owns to 1,558 acres, enough to replicate another Bandar Sunway township like the one in Petaling Jaya.
Practically every developer in town has acquired a parcel in Bandar Iskandar that continues to see strong activity in the real estate sector compared with Kuala Lumpur, where the take-up rates for high-end development has slowed significantly.
The developers are banking on the rising costs of living and doing business in Singapore, together with the chronic shortage of manual labour that is pushing companies to relocate to Johor.
For them, the long talked about "tipping point" has come, something that was marked by the entry of Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, a former remisier who is known as a shrewd businessman with a knack for spotting investment trends early. Lim has a 70% stake in a joint venture with UEM Land Holdings Bhd to develop Motorsports City at over RM3.5 billion.
The other trigger point is the entry of Country Garden Holdings Ltd into Danga Bay, a development undertaken by Iskandar Waterfront Holdings Sdn Bhd (IWH).
Tan Sri Lim Kang Hoo, who spearheads IWH, says residential development in Danga Bay, a waterfront project in Johor Baru is being sold for as high as RM700 per sq ft (psf).
"In Singapore, the cost of space can hit S$3,000 (RM7,508) psf. We have a viable alternative that's only a stone's throw from the Causeway. When the proposed MRT (mass rapid transit) comes to Johor Baru from Singapore, connectivity won't be a problem for those wanting to live in JB and travel to Singapore," says K H Lim.
"When I first started investing in Johor Baru some 15 years ago, my selling point was that the city would eventually be what Shenzen in China is to Hong Kong.
"I used to be ridiculed when I positioned JB as the Shenzen of Singapore. Today, others are talking about it. My showroom is always filled with people from Singapore and locals wanting a piece of the action."
China's property development giant Country Garden is acquiring 55 acres in Danga Bay for RM900 million. This works out to about RM376 psf, which is marginally higher than the first parcel of land sold in Danga Bay a year ago at RM350 psf.
"We are talking to a few big names. After we secure their investment, we will no longer sell land on a negotiated basis. We want to tender out the sale," says K H Lim, who is confident that the entry of Country Garden will be a catalyst for other big developers to stake their claim in Danga Bay.
The Peter Lim factor
The showpiece of Peter Lim's Motorsports City is a RM200 million racing circuit that caters for motoring and F1 enthusiasts as well as automotive companies wanting to test drive their vehicles. Lim hopes to use the circuit to attract other related businesses in the automotive field to set up shop in Motorsports City.
"I believe we can build a sound business model that will attract motor companies from around the region," Lim said at the signing ceremony to seal the acquisition of the land in Nusajaya.
Lim, through FASTrack Autosports Pte Ltd, will own 70% in the joint venture, with the rest held by UEM Land Holdings Bhd.
Just like K H Lim's Danga Bay development, Motorsport City will be banking on Singapore's business enterprises to make the venture work.
FASTrack Automotive CEO Barry Kan told The Edge that the plan is to provide an avenue for automotive companies to set up office in Johor to test their machines or hold car launches.
"Pursuant to the big boys setting up shop, the outlets selling motor accessories, spare parts and other industries related to the automotive sector will follow suit," says Kan.
But the biggest aspiration of Motorsport City is to provide a platform for the big companies to set up their sales and service centres in Motorsport City to cater for vehicles from Singapore.
Riding the cost competitive advantage, Kan says it will be cheaper for them to service the cars in Iskandar than in Singapore. "It's a win-win situation for both the companies and their customers as labour and space are expensive in Singapore," he says.
Kan, who has many years of experience in the automotive business, intends to use the Second Link to maximum effect. "It can't be done elsewhere. This site, which is just five minutes from the Second Link, is closest to Singapore. Concerns about car-jacking will be minimised and UEM Land has assured that it will invest a lot more in enhancing security."
Weathering the storm ahead
A major concern is the issue of a real estate glut, what with the slew of property developers investing in Iskandar Malaysia and interest beginning to pick up in waterfront land under IWH.
The danger of overbuilding is evident from the situation in the Middle East where the downturn forced foreigners to simply surrender their properties to foreclosure. Vehicles were abandoned at the car parks of airports, adding to the non-performing loans (NPLs) of the banking system, forcing governments to cough up new money.
Iskandar Investment Bhd, an investment arm overseeing some development projects in Iskandar Malaysia, has already raised concerns about future developments.
IWH's K H Lim has also expressed his fears of a glut as the waterfront development primarily caters for the high-end office space, retail, commercial and luxury residential projects.
As a precaution, he says IWH is looking at selling land to strong property developers such as Country Garden that has the financial clout to weather a slowdown.
However, UEM Land's managing director and CEO Datuk Wan Abdullah Wan Ibrahim brushes off such concerns, pointing to the recent sale of an apartment block in Tanjung Puteri where more than 80% of the units were taken up.
"Demand is strong and the sales were done at RM700 psf. We are catering to the region and not the local market only. I don't see a glut situation happening," he says.
Another developer says the key to Iskandar Malaysia and Danga Bay not going into an overbuilt situation is to ensure that there are development projects that create employment.
"For instance, Motorsports City will create 5,000 new jobs. Ascendas Pte Ltd is developing a technology park that will create 35,000 jobs. All these people will need a place to live and recreational outlets to relax and hold meetings at," he says.
On this score, he feels that Iskandar Malaysia has a better chance of withstanding any downturn because the cost of land is cheaper than the development undertaken by IWH and more projects are being approved to create jobs.
"For instance, Motorsports City is being built at RM19 psf. Compare this with the waterfront development where reclamation work alone is RM60 psf," he says.
"Thus, it's only conducive for high-end projects and these have a longer gestation period."
That is probably the reason why the rate of development in Iskandar Malaysia is faster than in the areas under IWH.
Kan of FASTrack Automotive says the fears of overbuilding should not arise. "The tenure over the land is long term and the cost is cheap. It's something for the long term."
The key players in Johor's transformation
Tan Sri Lim Kang Hoo
Tan Sri Lim Kang Hoo is in a different phase of his corporate life. KH Lim, who started off as a small contractor in the 1980s doing renovation work, now has equity interest in four public-listed companies — Ekovest Bhd, PLS Plantation Bhd, Knusford Bhd, in which the Johor royal family is the largest shareholder, and Tebrau Teguh Bhd, which is controlled by Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor (KPRJ).
However, his most notable investment is in Iskandar Waterfront Holdings Sdn Bhd (IWH), which is the master developer for all waterfront land and the central business district (CBD) of Johor Baru. He holds a 60% stake in IWH through his family company, Credence Resources Sdn Bhd.
Although KH Lim hails from Selangor, he is said to be well-connected in Johor, where he is undertaking long-term projects such as the RM80 billion Danga Bay waterfront development.
Unlike at Ekovest, which Lim operates together with his brothers, IWH is his private investment.
Singapore billionaire Peter Lim is a newcomer to the Iskandar buzz with his proposed RM3.5 billion Motorsports City project.
But his reputation clearly precedes him as he hogged the limelight at the signing of a joint venture agreement between UEM Land Holdings Bhd and FASTrack Autosports Pte Ltd. Lim, a shareholder and director of McLaren Automotive, had also invited Formula One champion driver Lewis Hamilton to the event.
A shrewd investor, Lim is also a philanthropist. In 2010, he pledged S$10 million to the Singapore Olympic Foundation to boost and nurture young athletes.
Son of a fishmonger, he struck it big as a stockbroker in the mid-1990s, earning the nickname "Remisier King". Forbes, in July 2010, rated Lim as one of Singapore's 40 richest people with an estimated net worth of S$1.6 billion. His key holdings include palm oil giant Wilmar International Ltd and fashion outfit FJ Benjamin.
Datuk Wan Abdullah Wan Ibrahim
UEM Land Holdings Bhd saw a few milestones under the stewardship of Datuk Wan Abdullah Wan Ibrahim. This included UEM Land's acquisition of Sunrise Bhd, catapulting the former to become the biggest property counter on Bursa Malaysia by market capitalisation.
UEM Land now has a market cap of close to RM9.3 billion based on 4.324 billion shares issued at the closing share price of RM2.15 last Friday.
Prior to joining UEM Land, Wan Abdullah was with Kumpulan Guthrie Bhd, where he led the group's property development division.
At UEM Land, he is the point man for all development projects and is known to push his team to achieve ambitious sales targets.
The Johor royal family
The Johor royal family plays an important role in the major business transformation taking place in the state based on investments in several companies.
The crown prince Tunku Ismail Idris Tunku Ibrahim and Daing A Malek Daing A Rahaman have stakes in the reclamation projects in Pengerang and Tanjung Piai awarded to Benalec Holdings Bhd.
Tunku Ismail and Daing are directors of Spektrum Kukuh and Spektrum Budi, with 21% and 9% equity interest respectively in the two companies, which are partners of Benalec Holdings Bhd in the reclamation projects.
The royal family, together with Tan Sri Lim Kang Hoo, collectively hold 32% in Kunsford Bhd, which has won several jobs in the state.
This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Dec 10-16, 2012.
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